Jack is a former cop and now a bounty hunter who prefers to be called a skip tracer. He reminds me of the hardboiled heroes of the old days with names like Mike Hammer and Sam Spade, guys who didn’t hesitate to kick down a door or whack a guy with a .45 or a right cross. It’s not that Jack likes to fight. It just happens. A lot.
In this story, he goes back to Baltimore, his home town (mine, too, by the way), where a dangerous fugitive may be hiding and a dangerous woman from his past may be waiting.
Earl Staggs is a three-time winner of the Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year and earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. He invites any comments via email at email@example.com
He also invites you to visit his blog site at https://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com to learn more about his novels and stories.
This story was originally published in the Mouth Full of Bullets in 2007.
by Earl Staggs
“I have to go to Baltimore,” I said.
She hesitated. I knew what she was thinking. “Baltimore?”
“According to my sources, that’s where he would go. His mother still lives there.”
She fiddled with papers on her desk and didn’t look at me. “Do you have an address for the mother?”
“No. She has no phone listing, at least not under her own name, but I should be able to track her down. I still have some contacts there.”
I shouldn’t have said that. She continued to fiddle and said softly, “I know you do.”
I got up, rounded the desk and cupped her cheeks in my hands. “Bev, that other stuff is ancient history. This trip is strictly business, okay?”
She looked up at me and I kissed her on the forehead.
She smiled. “Okay. Just be careful.”
“Not to worry. Love you, Babe.”
“Love you too, Jack.”
At 4:30 that afternoon, I was on I-95 South with a two-hour drive ahead of me. Tommy Roselli pulled a string of convenience store robberies in South Philly. In the last one, he nearly beat a seventy-year-old man to death. Two weeks ago, after his trial, he climbed out a window of the men’s room on the third floor of the Court House and managed a miraculous escape. The old man’s family scraped together a twenty thousand dollar reward for bringing him in. When the bail bonding business is slow, I go out after bounties. That’s why I was going to Baltimore. It sure as hell wasn’t to see Sandy. I’d seen the last of her three years ago when I came home and found her in bed with another guy. After I beat the shit out of the guy, I quit the Baltimore police force, moved to Philly and met Bev.
Bev inherited the Liberty Bail Bonding Agency from her dad, and I signed on as a skip tracer. I don’t know why she put up with me. That first six months, I spent more time drinking than working. When I finally told her about Sandy, she pretty much took charge of my life and got me off the sauce. Hell, she even got me to quit smoking which, for a three-pack-a-day man, was as hard as giving up the booze. Somewhere along the way, I realized she was the best thing that ever happened to me.
To find Roselli’s mother, I’d have to call on Mel Thomas. Mel knew where every scumbag in Baltimore was hiding and if he didn’t know, he knew someone who did. Mel was my old partner on the force. He was also the guy I beat the crap out of when I found him in bed with Sandy. He should be over it by now. I was.
I had Roselli’s mug shot so I knew what he looked like. Skinhead, prison muscles and prison tattoos on both arms. Other than that, all I knew was that he was a mean, rotten bastard who chain-smoked Marlboros and was addicted to Diet Pepsi.
When I drew within sight of the office buildings surrounding Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, I called Mel’s home number. His wife answered.
“Jack!” she nearly screamed. “What a great surprise. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Margee. How’re you?”
“Oh, you know me. I never change. I guess you want Mel.”
“If he’s up,” I said. I assumed Mel still worked graveyard and might be asleep.
“I’ll get him for you. You come see us, you hear?”
She was back to the phone in less than a minute. “Jack, if you’re here in town, you should call Sandy. She asks about you all the time.”
“I’m only here for today, a quick in and out.”
“I know she’d love to hear from you.”
“Maybe next time,” I said.
She said, “Awww,” in kind of a moan, as if it really mattered whether I saw Sandy or not. Margee never knew what went down between Mel, Sandy and me. Apparently, she and Sandy were still close friends. Then, “Okay. Here’s Mel.”
“Jack,” he said in a groggy monotone. He’d just gotten up.
“Mel,” I said, “I’m in town on business and I could use your help. Can we meet?”
I heard him yawn and pictured him doing a big stretch and running his hand through his thick bush of straight dark hair. “I guess. Where?”
“Okay.” He hung up.
Mel slid into the booth at Angelo’s a half hour later. The tiny sub and pizza place hadn’t changed and neither had Mel. He was six-four, broad-shouldered and slim-waisted, and always looked like clothes could not be made to fit him. His polo shirt was too tight and his jeans were too loose.
“Long time,” he said. “How you been?”
“Great. How’re things with you?”
“Couldn’t be better,” he said. He was looking in my direction, but not really at me. I wondered if one of us would bring up the past and which one of us it would be.
If it was going to be him, he wasn’t ready to yet. “You said you were here on business. What’s up?”
A waitress came and Mel ordered a beer. I ordered iced tea. He gave me a look. “Gave it up,” I said.
“Good for you.”
While we waited for our drinks, I told him what I did for a living these days and why I was there. “I want to start with his mother, but I need an address for her.”
“Waste of time,” he said. “The papers came through on Roselli, but I didn’t pull the case. It went to Schmidt and Locklear. I heard them talking, though, and the mother knows nothing. She hasn’t seen him, doesn’t know where he is, and doesn’t want to know.”
I shrugged. “I have to start somewhere. Maybe they didn’t ask the right questions. Can you get me her address?”
He shrugged back. We both knew it was against the rules to give information on an open case to an outsider.
“Sure,” he said. “What the hell. Got a phone? I’ll call you later.”
I wrote my cell phone number on a napkin. He shoved it in his pocket as the waitress brought our drinks. I took a sip of iced tea and he took a long pull on his beer. Then he held the bottle as if he were reading the label.
“Jack,” he said. “About what happened.”
I waved it off. “Ancient history.”
“No, there’s something I want to say, something I’ve been wanting to say ever since it happened. Margee and I were having some problems. You know, marriage stuff. That day, I opened up to Sandy. Man, did I open up. I cried like a goddamn baby. All she wanted to do was comfort me, I guess, but one thing led to another and. . . .“ He took another drink, then turned to look out the window beside our booth. “Margee and I worked things out, and she doesn’t know anything about it. She thinks you and Sandy broke up because of your own shit. It was just that one time, Jack, and it didn’t mean anything.”
“Like I said, Mel. It’s history. Shit happens, man. All you can do is wipe, flush, zip up and move on. I’m glad things are okay with you and Margee. She’s a good kid.”
“Yeah,” he said. “She’s the best. Every once in a while I look at her and feel like two tons of dog crap for what I did with Sandy. It’s like you swallow something and think it’s down for good but every once in a while, it wants to puke itself back up.”
He was still looking out the window, but I saw a moist glaze over his eyes. Damn. I thought the big lug was going to cry. He took a long swig of his beer and rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. That seemed to settle him and he turned to me.
“Sandy’s a good kid, too, Jack. It was always you and still is, truth be known. She’s always asking if I heard from you.”
Mel reached into his pocket and brought out the napkin I’d written my phone number on. He tore it in half, wrote a phone number on the blank half and slid it across the table to me. ”You should give her a call while you’re in town.”
I stared at it for a minute. Mel probably thought if he got Sandy and me back together it would ease his conscience. I picked up the number and put it in my pocket. “Maybe next time,” I said.
We talked another half hour about baseball, football, and the old days when we worked together. Before we parted, he said, “Give her a call.”
An hour later, Mel called me with the address for Roselli’s mother. I drove past the address on East Lexington and parked down the street. She lived in Apartment A in one of the three-story red brick rowhouses that had once been single-family homes. Most of them in older sections of town like this one had been converted into small apartments. Slumlord owners never repaired anything, and when one tenant got far enough behind on rent, booted them out and moved new tenants in. There was never a shortage of tenants, usually single mothers on welfare with children from multiple fathers and older people scraping by on Social Security.
The entrance door opened into a long hallway with doors on the right and a staircase at the end. Apartment A was the first one. I knocked and waited. After several moments, the door opened as far as the security chain would allow and the head of a woman somewhere between sixty and eighty appeared in the opening. Her stringy gray hair looked like she hadn’t touched it since getting up that morning, and her face showed the mileage of a long hard life.
“Who’re you?” she asked.
“Name’s Phil. Tommy here?”
“Ain’t seen him. Whatta ya want him for?”
I tried to look disappointed. “Damn! I got fifty bucks I owe him. He said if I didn’t bring it by today, he’d come after me and take it out of my hide. Can I leave the money with you?”
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll see he gets it.” She stuck a wrinkled hand through the opening of the door, palm up. Her fingers were knotty and bent from arthritis.
I tried to look perplexed. “Yeah, well, the problem is, I have to have proof I left the money.” I pulled some bills from my pocket and held them up for her to see. “Can I come in and you write me a receipt?”
She stared at the money in my hand for only a second or two before taking the bait. “Okay. Wait a minute.”
The door closed and I heard the slide of the security chain followed by a clank when the chain fell against the door. The door opened and I stepped inside. Her tiny living room was crowded by only a sofa and a recliner chair, both covered by old ragged blankets, and a short, squatty cabinet topped off by a TV. I hadn’t seen rabbit ears on a TV in many years, but cable would be a luxury in this neighborhood. That room opened into a kitchen with a square wood table and three dinette chairs in the center. Two of the chairs matched. A sink with formica counters on either side and ancient wood cabinets above it lined one wall. An old refrigerator hummed quietly in a corner. There were two doors at the back of the small kitchen. One would be a bedroom and the other a bathroom.
I followed her into the kitchen and was immediately hit by a familiar odor. When you smoke as long as I did and quit, the lingering smell of cigarette smoke grabs you. She sat at the table, moved a stack of unopened mail aside and found a bill from Baltimore Gas & Electric with “Past Due” in big red letters at the top. She turned it over to the blank side and apparently decided it would do for my receipt. She didn’t invite me to sit and I didn’t want to. She moved a stack of newspapers, picked up a ball point pen, and started writing.
I patted my pockets. “Damn,” I said. “Out of smokes. You have any? I’ll pay you for one.”
Her concentration remained on her writing. Without looking up at me, she said. “I don’t smoke. Can’t afford it.”
Writing must have been difficult with her arthritic fingers. Her hand moved slowly and meticulously over the paper. I moved toward the sink. “Mind if I get a drink of water?”
I saw a chipped coffee cup in the drain rack on the counter by the sink. Beside it, a large glass ashtray that had been rinsed and put there to dry. I filled the cup with water from the faucet and leaned back against the counter as if I would actually drink it. I glanced over and down into an open plastic trashcan at the end of the counter and spotted three Diet Pepsi cans and a large number of cigarette butts. One butt near the top was long enough for me to read the brand name. Marlboro. I emptied the cup of water into the sink and returned it to the drain rack just as she put her pen down.
She held out the paper to me. “Here.”
I took it and pretended to read it. Her handwriting was so bad, I could only make out the number “50.”
“Great,” I said. I pulled out my wad, peeled off a twenty and three tens and dropped it on the table. “I’ll see myself out.” I headed for the door.
With the door open, before I stepped out of her apartment, I looked back. She had picked up the bills and fanned them across both hands with a dreamy look on her face. What would she spend it for? Food? Clothing? Booze? I’d seen many like her in my years on the force. At first, it broke my heart to see them. Entire lives dwindled down to living like this. After so many, there was only sadness borne of an acceptance that there wasn’t a damn thing you could do for them.
Back in my car, I checked the time. Eight-thirty. I figured sometime during the night, Tommy Roselli would sneak back here to crash. Stakeouts come with the territory whether you’re a cop, a skip tracer, or private. I hated stakeouts as much as ever, but I had no choice.
I found a Steak and Ale restaurant not far away. After I’d been seated at a table, I realized Sandy and I had eaten there a few times. Or maybe I’d gone there because it was a place we’d been to together. No, I wouldn’t do that. I was over her. I pushed it aside and had a leisurely dinner.
It was quarter to eleven when I parked on East Lexington again, just down the block and across the street from Roselli’s mother’s apartment. Nothing to do but settle in and wait. I’d done stakeouts that lasted many hours, some for several days. This was my lucky night. Tommy Roselli showed up at half past midnight.
He was inside the apartment by the time I entered the house. I figured when I knocked, Tommy would run into a back room and let his mother answer the door. She’d let me in because I’d been there before, and she thought I was his friend. After that, I’d play it by ear as to how I’d take him down. I checked the can of Mace hooked on my belt and raised my hand to knock. Before I could, I heard a man’s voice through the door.
“Gimme the goddamn money, bitch!”
“No, this is all I’ve got. You took my rent money.”
The next sound was a hard slap, followed a yelp from her and the sound of her body falling to the floor. The sonofabitch!
I took a step back and positioned myself to kick in the door. I didn’t have to. The door flew open and Roselli started out. He froze when he saw me. I saw money in his left hand. My fifty bucks.
“Who the hell are you?” he said.
I reached for the Mace. “I have an arrest warrant for you, Roselli. Make it easy on yourself. Turn around and put your hands behind your head.”
Before I could bring the Mace up, his right fist caught me on the side of my head. I dropped the Mace and staggered backward. I blocked his next swing and ducked under the one after that. My turn. I slammed my fist into his abdomen. That stunned him for a second and I threw a right and a left into his chest to take his breath away. He stumbled back against the wall and I hit him with a left and a right to the face that put him on the floor. He was out.
After I had flex cuffs on his wrists and ankles, I went inside to check on his mother. She was leaning over the kitchen sink with a wet cloth against her nose and mouth. I saw blood under the cloth and on her chin and neck. “I’ll call an ambulance,” I said.
“No,” she said. “It’s just a bloody nose.” She took the cloth away and the bleeding had stopped.
I went back to the hallway. Roselli was still out cold. I gathered up the fifty bucks scattered on the floor, added another hundred, and returned to the kitchen. I took her hand and wadded the money in it. She slipped it into her pocket.
She said, “Thanks. Now put that bastard back in jail where he belongs and keep him there this time.”
I called the precinct house and left an urgent message for Mel. He called back in less than two minutes and, after I brought him up to date, he arrived twenty minutes later with a backup car right behind him.
Mel signed my transfer of custody form. He’d get a good collar on his record and I’d get the bounty. When he was ready to take Roselli away, Mel and I promised to visit each other. We did a guy hug and said good bye.
As he walked away, he said, “You really should give her a call.”
When I got in my car and reached in my pocket for my keys, Sandy’s phone number came out with them. Maybe Mel was right and I should call her. Knowing her, she’d want to get together. “Just for old time’s sake,” she’d say. “One drink for the road, that’s all,” she’d say. Like hell. We’d never been able to get within ten feet of each other without wanting to tear our clothes off and get to it.
So what? Would it do any harm? Is it so terrible to revisit the past just for one night? Do you ever really get over someone you were with for four years? Do you have to? It’s not
like I’d be running back and forth to Baltimore to see her on a regular basis. It would only be one night.
I thought about it for a few minutes more. I thought about Bev and how she cleaned me up and probably saved my life. I thought about Mel and what he’d said.
“. . .Every once in a while I look at her and feel like two tons of dog crap for what I did with Sandy. It’s like you swallow something and think it’s down for good but every once in a while, it wants to puke itself back up.”
Hell, I did enough puking when I got off the booze.
I pulled out my phone.
She answered halfway through the first ring. “I was hoping you’d call. How did everything go?”
“Fine,” I said. “Roselli’s in custody and I’m coming home. Leave the light on.”
Bev said, “I’ll wait up.”